James Lowe was for a time head chef of St. John Bread & Wine in London. He got to know "like-minded" chefs Isaac McHale and Ben Greeno through a stage at Noma and subsequent collaborations at one-off events. In 2010 the trio formed the Young Turks, a collective with the goal of creating "a platform to work together, doing one off and short lived events, promoting a new approach to British cooking that focuses on small producers and emphasizes collaboration and helpfulness over secrecy." Now a duo (Greeno left to run the kitchen at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney), the Young Turks have set up shop at the historic London pub Ten Bells, where they'll be cooking through April.
In the following interview, Lowe talks about the genesis of the group, the lack of approachable, fun fine dining in London, the beauty of adapting to different cooking environments, and his plans for a restaurant.
Who are the Young Turks?
We are a group of like-minded industry professionals who want to see something different in the London restaurant scene, so we've... set about to be that something different [laughs].
Why do you exist? What are you perhaps reacting against?
I would say that what we want to do isn't anything particularly radical. It's to do good food, but we want to make it more accessible — less expensive, more fun, less formal than you would find at the London fine dining restaurant where you would normally get good food and tablecloths and French waiters.
One of the things I love about the United States is that you don't really have that problem anymore. But here we tend to have very French-looking front of house teams that are stiff and no fun, which is something that Americans avoid in a really nice way these days, even in the very high-end restaurants. They manage to be professional, charming, and knowledgeable, but it's not too starched. We really don't have that.
Our front of house guys strive for that. They love restaurants like Isaac and I do, they take a serious interest in the food, and they have a beautiful way of putting the dining room at ease. They make the music playlists, which probably sounds completely normal to you but is actually novel here.
They asked us at Omnivore what made us novel, and I felt almost a bit stupid talking about the no-choice menu and casual, informed service style, since that's not new in Paris or certain major cities. The point is that it's very different for London, which is an amazing food city in terms of diversity. But one of the things we don't do well is the wd-50 thing, where you can have a spot-on meal in a casual context. We haven't caught up with that here.
How did you, Isaac McHale, and Ben Greeno (who's now at Momofuku Seiobo) come together and decide to do this?
We all met because we were British chefs that wanted to go and stage abroad, which is not very normal here. Most British chefs aspire to the Gordon Ramsays and the three-star level, but I've never been inspired by that. I used to eat in places in Spain, and places like St. John and Fat Duck were the things that inspired me to cook. Isaac kind of got into cooking through Indian food and then working at a fish monger.
We all went abroad to work, and one of the places where we all met mutual friends was staging at Noma. And we'd all hear about each other, the British guys, while working there. Then Nuno Mendes did the Loft Project, and I, Isaac, and Ben did stints there two summers ago. We all helped each other and we spent much of that summer chatting about restaurants in London and restaurants abroad — what we liked, what needed to change. So we decided to do some one-off events.
Ben left to work at Momofuku in Sydney, but Isaac and I kept going, and when the opportunity to take over this dining room [The Ten Bells] came up, we jumped straight on it. Isaac finished up his job at The Ledbury, and the front of house guys quit their jobs. Initially they did that just so they could be involved in what was to be a two month project, but it turned into something really good that is now going through April. I had finished at St. John already, but they actually quit to be a part of this.
Let's talk about adaptive cooking, which came up when I met you. What do you lose, what do you gain?
I think that any time you do something that has a limited run in a site where there is not normally a restaurant, you inevitably are going to be limited. To a large extent I enjoy those limitations, because it gives you your boundaries and you then have a space to be creative within. You can't do everything that you could at a restaurant, but you end up trying this that you wouldn't with more at your disposal. A lot of the things we've done have remained with us, and we revisit those ideas now, even when we're in a bigger kitchen.
What's an example?
We did a thing at Frank's this summer where basically the only means of cooking was a massive grill. We had had a lot of riots in London, and the inspiring thing about it was that while some neighborhoods were looting and intimidating people, the Turkish population in East London took to the streets to protect the area and keep the rioters out. So we decided to do some Turkish dishes in our way, since Isaac and I love going to Turkish places.
There's that Turkish dish of grilled onions with pomegranate molasses, and it was the middle of summer when he had been pickling red currants and elderberries, so we thought to do a version of that. We grilled onions, really blackened them, took them off, and then instead of the pomegranate we did the currants and elderberries. That plate suited the location, but now we still use it either as a second course or a garnish for mallard. We play with it depending on the season, but the technique is something we developed in that limited environment.
How would you describe how you and Isaac collaborate?
It doesn't happen that often that someone comes up with a dish and the idea can't be improved. The way it normally works is that we'll talk about the product that we have — we change the menu every week — and develop the menu for a couple of days and really come up with the dishes together. It's very open. We have two people that work in the kitchen with us, and we take on their ideas as well. It's based around discussion, really.
So it's not a hierarchical kitchen.
No, it's an odd one. We tend to split naturally in the kitchen and tend to stay in certain sections, but we do bits and bobs all around the kitchen.
It can be silly to talk about food styles, but one of the things that keeps coming up in articles about your food is the seasonality and Britishness. How do you see that?
Yes, food styles can be pretty rubbish to talk about, because everyone says the same thing, the term of the moment, even if they aren't doing it.
I think the food is quite seasonal, but most of these things are quite common sense if you want to do good food. I think it's quite British in style, but the important thing is that it is very personal to us. It's not exclusively British ingredients and the ideas are definitely not exclusively British. We do one Turkish-inspired dish which we actually think is quite British, because this a diverse culture. Most of all, these are things that we enjoy, and they tend to be British. For example, I don't think lemongrass will ever come into our menu.
Also, we want to support British farmers and producers, which I think ends up making the food British. When I think of British food, I think of St. John, but of course outside some may think of fish and chips and things like that. It's very produce-driven, which I think is a better way to describe it as seasonal. I've heard people say things like farm-to-table, which is fucking stupid. Where else does food come from? And I think the seasonal thing does stand out, because a lot of people haven't been cooking seasonal food.
When I met you last week, you spoke of how much you love the seasons specifically in Britain. Can you talk a bit about that?
British food gets a pretty bad rap, but compared to a lot of countries, the diversity between the seasons that you get here is massive. I think somewhere like Australia you have less change in seasons, but you can grow basically anything because it's a large landmass.
Here, you have a game season, for instance, which very few people have. When we opened, it was around that time, so there was wild stuff on our menu every single week. Not a lot of people eat that, so the fact that there was no choice on the menu and people had to try it was great. They couldn't have the safe dish of salmon and avocado, because it wasn't on there, but they ended up loving the wild stuff. I think because we have such climactic variations, I think people crave different foods in different seasons. I think it also affects the style of food. In the summer, it'll be light and vibrant and fun, and in the winter, you'll tend to find things that are heartier. A lot of places will have the duck breast on the menu throughout the year and just perhaps change the side, but that's not the case here. That wouldn't be seasonal cooking to me. And we don't have to work particularly hard to achieve that thanks to the seasons.
The menu almost kind of writes itself when you just look at what's available.
Going back to the question of the staid, French-style restaurant. Do you think what you guys are doing is catching on?
I think it's starting. There are some places that have been doing it for a while, but where the food is as casual as the environment. What we don't have is maybe more technical and aspirational food in a fun, accessible environment. But it takes a long time to set up restaurants, and I don't expect for it to have caught on in the time since we opened. I do think that people have noticed, though. I don't want to say that we're ahead of the curve, but I just think that it's a different matter to apply it to a restaurant as opposed to a one-off. We kind of got the jump on people because of the quick nature of these projects. I think there's a desire for change, though.
Why do you think it's taken so long for people to get hip to that in such a cosmopolitan city?
I think people have had their heads down working hard and have not bothered to look around. You know, the Michelin Guide is still very important in this country, and people are more obsessed with it than they should be. Rather than looking at what's going on in other countries, they've just looked at London and continued that.
Do you think that's a natural phenomenon, or does it have something to do with the culture?
I think it's perhaps a British attitude to look out and say, "Why should I bother to go beyond what we're doing here, which is great?" It's like the English language thing: some people don't find it important to learn a foreign language, because when they go abroad, they assume that's what will be spoken.
Finally, what's next?
Isaac and I are looking for separate permanent restaurants. They'll be quite similar in some ways, but I think that our separate personalities will show in the restaurants. But we want to continue doing food events and bringing people in. We don't want to do a symposium or anything like that, but maybe a weekend where we have five dinners with a group of chefs. The difficult thing is that Ten Bells is open six days a week and we're trying to find spaces for our restaurants, so it takes up a ton of time.
We have an idea for an event called "Who's Next?" where we'd do three nights of dinners — five chefs a night — in an interesting setting. That allows people who aren't normally in London or British people working abroad to come back. These wouldn't really be people with their own restaurants, but head chefs or something like that who might soon be big. We have loads of ideas.
One of the other things in this country is that we don't have that community feeling. We don't have anything like Omnivore or Identità. In New York, there's camaraderie and chefs get together and have big laughs. There's less competition and more collaboration, and we want to get some of that spirit and momentum going here in London.